Apple's video-viewing software predates most other streaming media technologies in the market, used as one of the early common formats for video on CD-ROMs. But as Web use has soared, QuickTime's profile has fallen.
A recent report from research firm Jupiter Media Metrix showed QuickTime to be the only major video format to be losing ground, dropping 8 percent of its market share between January 2000 and January 2001. About 7.2 million people had QuickTime installed on their computers, compared with about 25 million for RealNetworks software, the research company said.
Apple's new release, which includes consumer software and the streaming servers companies use to send videos across the Net, is designed to position it in a market where big media companies are starting to take multimedia more seriously. The next year will be a critical one for technology companies that want to see the big movie studios or record labels use their products to package movies or albums online.
Analysts say Apple, however, needs to focus as much on deal-making as on new features for QuickTime if it is to close the gap with RealNetworks and Microsoft.
"It will only happen if they start striking big deals with content owners," said P.J. McNealy, a Gartner analyst. "Right now, if you go to most Web sites, the two choices you have are (RealNetworks) or Microsoft."
The latest version of QuickTime, released Monday, includes several features not seen in earlier releases including new video technology aimed at improving picture quality and download speed, a new interface, and an automatic update service. The company is also showing a "preview" version that supports high-quality MPEG-4, a successor to the technology that gave the world the popular MP3 audio format but is still relatively uncommon online.
Much of the battle for market dominance over the next few years is likely to focus around these new, high-quality formats. Much of Apple's technology was used by the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) to develop the standard, but Microsoft's newest Media Player already has a version of the new technology inside.
Because it takes a relatively fast computer to handle the MPEG-4 video, it's not yet widely used on the Net. An underground version of it, called DivX, has been used for about a year-and-a-half to distribute high-quality, illegally copied movies, however.
Apple has disputed the figures showing that it is well behind its rivals online. More than 150 million individual copies of QuickTime have been distributed worldwide, the company says.
"QuickTime has been long established as the digital media standard for capturing, encoding and delivering content on the Internet," Philip Schiller, Apple's marketing vice president, said in a statement. "QuickTime 5 offers incredible new capabilities for everyone who creates or views multimedia content."